Steele is using the report as a framework for legislation he plans to introduce in the next session. He said lawyers at the Legislative Services Agency, the nonpartisan, research arm of the legislature, have already started crafting the bill.
Andrew Cullen, legislative liaison for the Indiana Public Defender Council and a member of the committee that issued the report, says he thinks Steele will find bipartisan support in the Statehouse.
“No one wants to encourage the use of drugs,” Cullen said. “But to make a low-level, recreational drug user into a felon is ridiculous.”
The House is expected to introduce its own version of legislation that would overhaul the state’s criminal code. State Rep. Jud McMillin, a former prosecutor from Brookville, is expected to carry the House version. McMillin said he hasn’t seen Steele’s proposal but agrees that the penalties for some drug crimes need to be revisited.
“We need to be spending our resources on people who need to be put away,” McMillin said.
Steele’s role is seen as critical: He’s been an ally of Indiana prosecutors, who aren’t expected to support his push to reduce penalties for some drug possession crimes. He’s also been seen as a “rock-ribbed, law-and-order guy,” said Ed Feigenbaum, longtime publisher of the Indiana Legislative Insight newsletter.
“For him to make this kind of concession is significant,” Feigenbaum said.
Steele hinted at his position last year when, as chairman of the Senate corrections committee, he cleared the way for a hearing on a bill that created a study on whether Indiana should legalize marijuana. That bill was authored by state Sen. Karen Tallian, a liberal Democrat from Portage. Tallian, 61, and Steele, 65, don’t agree on much politically. But both are lawyers who’ve seen people sent to jail or prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana and both question whether that’s the right result.
Tallian has done polling on the issue and said there’s a growing public sentiment that Indiana’s marijuana possession laws may be too tough.
“We don’t need to be putting kids in jail (for possessing marijuana) and making them into felons,” Tallian said. “I think most people will agree with that.”